Formula E is growing rapidly—the past two seasons saw BMW, Nissan, DS, Mercedes, and Porsche join with factory teams and the electric single-seater series is certified by the FIA as a World Championship for the 2020-2021 season. Formula E’s environmental focus has attracted automakers, and racing on the streets of metropolises, where air pollution is a pertinent concern, has made the sport more accessible to millions of fans. Now Formula E hopes to gain more followers with the documentary And We Go Green, co-directed by Academy Award-winner Fisher Stevens and Malcolm Venville. The Leonardo DiCaprio-produced film, which premiered at the 2019 Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, is now available for streaming on Hulu. I recently spoke with Sam Bird, driver for Envision Virgin Racing and one of the film’s stars, about And We Go Green and the impact Formula E can have on the world.
Were you excited about or wary to be part of the documentary?
I was excited— my job is to race as fast as I can, and I must be doing something correct if I’m going to be one of the main protagonists. To work with Fisher Stevens, with Malcom, and with Leonardo DiCaprio was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I enjoyed the whole process, and they made me feel very comfortable in front of the camera.
Do you think Formula E can help change racing and even civilian cars to make the world healthier in terms of the climate crisis?
It has been a catalyst for change: When Formula E started back in 2014, I think there were half a million EVs worldwide. By the end of filming, there were over 4 million EVs worldwide. The fact that these manufacturers have come into Formula E means that they’re getting more exposure and it’s growing all the time.
Has racing in Formula E forced you to think more about your own effect on the environment? Has it led you to change any aspects of your lifestyle?
The whole process of being a part of Formula E has definitely made me more aware of what I can do personally. If every single person did the little things it can turn into something big: turn off the lights, do recycling. I’ve gone vegan—the amount of carbon emissions that come out of the backside of a cow is unbelievable. I also know Lewis [Hamilton] is vegan, my wife is vegan, Jean-Éric Vergne is vegan, and I thought, you know what, I’m going to give this a go. I’m now ten kilos lighter than I was last year, and I can’t really look at a steak the way I used to, it doesn’t excite me anymore.
In the documentary, you describe the Formula E cars as the “hardest car I’ve ever had to drive in my life” and say they are unpredictable under braking. Why is the Formula E car so tricky? How is it different from, say, Formula 1 or GP2?
In GP2 and Formula 1, you’ve got big carbon brakes, slick tires, you’re on a rubbered in circuit, and you feel like you can ask more and more from the car and it will do the same thing every lap. You might run slightly wide if you brake too late, for example, but most of the time you’re on racing circuits designed so that if you do run wide it’s not the end of the world.
Formula E is different. We only race on city circuits, which means that if you make a mistake you’re in the wall—everything is riding on you having a completely clean day. We’ve got regeneration through the rear axle, to recuperate a little bit of energy under braking. So whenever I brake, it’s not just the brake calipers squeezing the pads into the discs, it’s also through engine braking, as it were. It depends on the state of charge: if it’s at 100 percent, there’s very little regeneration, whereas if it’s down at 75 percent, there’s full regeneration capabilities. In that stage from 100 to 75 percent, your brake bias is completely different. In the old car, which is what the film was about, we would then have to change our brake bias again towards the end, from 25 percent to 0 percent, going the other way on brake bias because then you’re getting less regeneration again. It’s a very tricky car to drive on the limit, partly because you’re on dusty and bumpy street circuits, and you’re up against 20 world class drivers.
What made you switch over to Formula E? Were there ever times early on as you were trying to adjust that you regretted it?
I’ve never regretted the switch, in fact, Formula E pretty much saved my racing career. At the end of 2013, I was the reserve driver for Mercedes F1, came second in GP2, and I was hoping to get a drive in Formula 1. It didn’t work and I was let go by Mercedes. I then had nothing. I lived in a one bedroom flat on my own, I had no money, I couldn’t afford the council tax bills. My electricity got cut off, and there was one day where I was sat in the dark flat, freezing cold, couldn’t afford anything, and I called my mum in tears and said, “Look, it’s over. I’m just going to have to go back to school or do a night course, study physical education and become a personal trainer. Racing is done.” Then I got a phone call from Virgin, who were starting a team in Formula E. I got the job and the rest is history.
One of the film’s most intense moments is in Paris, when André Lotterer’s late move up the inside resulted in him locking up and making contact with you. Later he ran out of energy, causing a last-lap collision that damaged your car. While we hear your frustration on the radio and in your post-race interview, you never resorted to expletives or chasing down Lotterer in the paddock. How do you keep your emotions in check?
That incident in itself, I still finished the race in third. Had that crash taken me out of the race I think you would’ve seen a slightly different side to me. André decided to move very late when he knew that the game was up, he wasn’t going to finish the race where he was. I still had a lot of energy to get to the finish, and moving that late meant I had nowhere to go and we collided. You have to keep your cool because there’s no point in losing your rag, effing and jeffing. I think it’s kind of a waste of energy. You might lessen your frustration a bit but you have to move on because you can’t change the past.
Formula E has much more contact than in other single seater series, and much of the contact isn’t penalized. Do you think that this is a direct result of the tightness of the street circuits you race on?
It’s because of the nature of the circuits we race on and also the cars that we drive. We’re able to follow extremely closely—you won’t find other single seaters driving as close to one another as Formula E cars are—and they are so tricky to control. We sometimes snatch a front brake while racing very closely and slightly touch the other car. There isn’t much aero effect on these cars, so if we have a scrape and are missing a bit of front wing, it might be slightly detrimental to your energy efficiency because there’s slightly more drag on the car but you can still have a very good finish.
When people have driven dangerously, penalties have been given out. We’re not here to promote dangerous driving. But light contact happens and that’s part of Formula E. The cars are robust enough to have a little bit of contact, and I think that’s quite exciting for the fans.
You say in the documentary that Jean-Éric Vergne “is the most difficult guy to overtake, he won’t give an inch.” Do you approach overtaking different drivers in different ways, does your strategy change depending on who you are behind?
Absolutely. Every driver has their own personality and you get to know that off and on the track. You know when you get behind people like Jev, André, Lucas [di Grassi], that it’s going to be tough. You’ve either got to force the issue, go down the inside, and there might be a bit of contact, or you work them out a bit like you see in the movie with my move in Hong Kong, which I would consider one of my best moves in Formula E. Then there’s other guys out there, they’re not pushovers, but you know they’re going to give up a bit easier than those three guys I mentioned.
During the 2017-2018 season, Lotterer really acted as a team player to help Vergne reach the title. Did you feel as if there was more your teammate at the time, Alex Lynn, could have done, and is it frustrating when it seems to become a two-on-one situation?
I wasn’t frustrated. Alex had a tough year, and he is a top driver and I enjoyed having him as a teammate. I would say it was more frustrating for him because there were glimpses of pace there, there were times when he was quick, but it couldn’t all come together. I genuinely don’t think that I would’ve scored another point had Alex been any quicker. I maximized the points in the car that we had in Season 4, and that’s the only season in my career that I can happily say that. We gave it everything and came up short but we gave it a damn good try.
There’s a great shot of Vergne finding you in the paddock after the first New York race, where he wrapped up the title, and exchanging a hug and words with you. What did it mean to you that he came and did that, especially since you two have had your differences in the past?
When we were teammates in Season Two we did not have a good relationship—it was a bad environment, Jev was going through some very difficult things in his life and I think that that didn’t help our relationship, but we’re well past that now. We’re good friends—he was one of an elite few guests at my wedding. I like him and I respect him a lot as a human, I respect him even more as a racing driver. We had a great battle through the year; we raced hard and fair.m I was always the underdog, but it was nice of him to come over and give me a hug.
All images courtesy of And We Go Green.